What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that form a framework for a society and ensure a peaceful existence. They are enforced by the state and, when violated, sanctions may be imposed. It is a complex subject, and many different books contain various ideas about what constitutes law. However, most share the view that law is a system of social controls that regulates behavior.

A legal system consists of laws, courts and the individuals or groups that uphold them. Laws can be made by a group legislature, creating statutes; by the executive, resulting in regulations; or by judges, creating precedent (in common law jurisdictions). Private individuals may also create legal contracts that adopt alternative ways of settling disputes to standard court litigation.

The precise definition of law is a subject of longstanding debate. Some philosophers have argued that it is merely the body of rules that a government enforces, while others have emphasized that the law should be morally just. A further question is whether or not the purpose of law is to control behavior, or simply to define the limits of a particular way of life.

Other scholars have viewed the role of the law as an instrument of social engineering, where conflicting pulls of political philosophy, economic interests and ethical values fight for recognition. One important concept in this area is that of the rule of law, which has been argued for by a number of scholars from Aristotle and medieval theorists to modern thinkers such as John Locke and Niccolo Machiavelli.

Its key elements are that there should be epistemically accessible rules, that people can study them and internalize them to guide their actions, and that the law should be reasonably stable over time. In addition, there should be a degree of protection against the kind of official arbitrariness that was the source of such horrors as the Nazi Holocaust and Saddam Hussein’s execution of thousands of his own Sunni Muslim opponents.

The broad discipline of law is divided into several major areas. For examples, criminal law concerns crimes and their punishment; family law deals with marriage, divorce and the rights of children; and business or transactional law covers commercial and financial matters. There are also specialized fields such as Islamic or Jewish law, and the intersection of law with the biosciences is called biolaw. Oxford Reference provides concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries for all these subjects. The website is available online, and the content can be searched and accessed at any time and place. It is a powerful tool for researchers at all levels of the field. The legal system is a complex and vital part of every society, and this resource will help readers understand its fundamentals. —Oxford University Press.